A quick history of Valentine’s Day
Pagan fertility rites, bawdy Roman festival, jilted Victorians… 14 February hasn’t always been hearts and flowers, writes Dr Drew Gray, lecturer in history at University of Northampton
Today it is Valentine’s Day, and so all the shops are full of heart-themed gifts, chocolates and cards. If you try to buy a bunch of red roses this week you can guarantee that they will be double what you’d pay at any other time of the year, and if you choose to eat out on Thursday night the menus will be ‘special’ and the tables set up for couples.
Valentine’s Day is now a commercial opportunity, just like Mother’s Day, Christmas and Easter but has it always been thus?
It is likely that Valentine’s Day celebrates the martyrdom of one or more individuals in ancient Christianity who were associated in some way with romance. The positioning of the holiday in February however has much more to do with the early Church’s campaign to eradicate paganism.
In Roman pagan tradition mid-February was a time to celebrate fertility and the god Faunus. During the festival of Lupercalia the unmarried young women of Rome would place their names in a large urn to be drawn out by the city’s bachelors. The couples were paired for a year but often (it is said) married their ‘chosen’ partners. There were other more bawdy elements to the festival, supposedly including nudity and spanking…
The romantic element (as opposed to the more overtly sexual one) of Valentine’s can be traced back to the 14th century when courtly love was very much in vogue amongst European nobility. By the early modern period the practice of sending love tokens on the 14 February seems to have been well established; Shakespeare references it in Hamlet for example. The late eighteenth century saw pamphlets published to help individuals write their own messages and the introduction of the penny post in 1840 opened up the possibly for the masses to exchange anonymous love letters.
The Victorians soon became hooked on the practice and card manufactures began to mass produce valentine cards in the 1840s. In 1847 the first commercial cards appeared in the United States and we can probably date the modern obsession with Valentine’s Day from then.
Of course the 14 February is just another day for many, and can quite a lonely place if you are on your own. There are hundreds of hits for a Google search of ‘Valentine’s Blues’ and the overhyping of this one day as a ‘time for lovers’ can be very challenging for those without a partner. There is also considerable pressure on those who are in relationships to make the day ‘special’, to spend lots of money, or simply to be ‘romantic’. It would probably be better to encourage a loving supportive relationship for 365 days of the year rather than just one.
Meanwhile back in 1847 in London one young woman was certainly not about to enjoy her Valentine’s Day, and her reaction to this ended up in a court case at one of London’s Police Magistrate Courts.
Thomas Frisk was a young saddler living in Fore Street in the City of London. For several months he had been courting a young lady named Mary. Mary (whose full name was Mary Martha Mills) lived in Somers Place West, St Pancras and for the past nine months Thomas had sent her his ‘addresses’ and had showered her with gifts and money.
He did so in the hope that they would be married and Mary had given him some encouragement. So confident (or hopeful) was he that they would be wed that Thomas sent her money to buy a fine china dinner service. The magistrate at Clerkenwell Police Court was told that Thomas did this in anticipation of the ‘happy day’ …when they would ‘be made one’.
Sadly for Mary Thomas was not a very patient young man and soon became keen on ‘another charmer’ and broke off the relationship with Mary. He then rather ungallantly heaped scorn on her unhappiness by demanding the return of the china she had bought to grace their marital home.
Mary reacted as many might and refused to return his gifts. Instead she pawned the dinner service and send him back the ‘duplicate’ (the pawn ticket). I’m sure Bridget Jones would empathise with Mary Martha Mills.
We all act differently when we are unlucky in love, or rejected by the object of our affections. Few of us will be so lucky to go through life without this happening.
Thomas was upset but his reaction was extreme. Instead of taking the hit to his pocket he chose instead to take his former amour to court. Not surprisingly the magistrate was less than sympathetic; the reporter in the paper noted that ‘Mr Wakeling [the magistrate] questioned the compliant, who cut a very sorry figure in court’, and dismissed the case without costs.
Love and marriage was one of several themes the court reporters of the Victorian press liked to cover for the ‘human interest’ nature of the stories. I’ve found a handful of stories that detail cases of eloping lovers, angered fathers, and broken relationships — all of which that end badly in the summary courts of the capital. They go to show us that our Victorian ancestors are much more closely linked to our modern lives than the passage of 150 or more years might suggest.
[from The Morning Post (London, England), Friday, February 12, 1847]